By Renae Smith
Okay everyone, stop.
Seriously, put whatever you are doing down and concentrate on this article. You’re about to be taken on a food journey – one that I highly recommend you convert from the written word into the physical form of soon as soon as humanly possible.
I’ve eaten at two (literally two) other restaurants that made me giggle with delight every time a dish was explained to me. I am 32 years old. So the fact that I am about to tell you that nel. Restaurant in Surry Hills had one of the best dishes I have ever eaten, in my entire life, has a bit of weight.
I’ve been on Masterchef, I’ve travelled around and eaten dishes at most of Australia’s best restaurants and I have even dated a celebrity chef – just for good measure – I’ve covered my food bases. I can therefore confirm with full reliability that the food at nel. Is next level, blow your mind, amazing.
My lovely review buddy, Dane, and I were invited to come and try nel. There’s two problems with being invited to review somewhere – firstly, I always feel guilty because I know how much work goes into every dish at a restaurant, and secondly, sometimes I feel bad if I have to give a ‘neutral’ review – I get the guilts… but I have, and always will be honest.
Let’s get into nel. Here’s a step by step, albeit brief, rundown of my night…
Firstly, you walk downstairs into the restaurant and note there’s not that many seats. Lovely. I’m not jammed in with half of Sydney celebrating something, screaming or looking for a good night out. It’s about people eating, and that’s perfect. Secondly, I was seated at a gorgeous table topped with the PERFECT glasses and cutlery. I don’t know about you, but I notice this shit. The water glasses were divine. In fact I actually spoke about them for a good 2 minutes with Dane, and then spoke to the lovely sommelier about them for another good 2 minutes. I’ll have to find a photo – they’re just – ahhh, nice. Someone actually thought about a glass, and didn’t get “oh, whatever is cheapest”. They’re crystal, paper thing and angular. Sigh – almost 400 words in and I haven’t even started on the food.
The food – there are two incredible degustation menus here. Vegetarian and ‘regular people’. Yes vegetarians of Sydney – an actual vegetarian degustation that has been created to RIVAL that of the meat options – and trust me, it delivers….and then it just keeps going.
I’ll list the dishes in order of appearance – both the meat option and the vegetarian option – and then give some feedback. We did get the matched wines and like everything else in this place, they have over achieved on the wine pairings. You don’t just get one wine with each dish – you get two. And why? Because it’s freaking BETTER that way and you get to sample MORE wines and more flavours so why the hell not?
First course – literally served on stones – actual river stones. Pickled quails egg on kombu. A perfectly soft centred quails egg with more flavour than you think is possible for a tiny little egg. The vegetarian option was served with a savoury macaron (oh, yes, macaron for dinner) flavoured with raspberry and sheeps curd with a little beetroot and the non veg was a delicate citrus cured piece of salmon and then salmon skin, salmon scales, salmon roe and a sauce made from the salmon offcuts and bones. Nose to tail anyone? Well played Chef… we’re excited now.
Second course – I had carrot, pea and potato. Sounds boring – BAM – more flavour that you can ever have in your life. Dane received green peas and ham (pictured). I don’t know what sort of peas these guys use, but I don’t think I will ever be able to down a frozen baby pea ever again – not even close to the same flavour.
Then we moved onto the bigger dishes.
Goats curd, daikon, tomato and basil for me and spanner crab, chilli, daikon, tomato ad basil for Dane.
Lets break it down – the tomato foam was creamy, somehow. The texture of whipped cream, and was just – amazing. The daikon was thinly sliced and had (wait for it) flowers pressed between the slices like antique flora books. My floral obsession was in full swing. The dish had a sprinkling of chilli was added a super unique experience when teamed with the crisp, cool tomato, basil and daikon flavours. The curd was whipped and light and the spanner crab cooked to absolute perfection.
When our plates were cleared, I declared “That’s my favourite dish tonight.” The waitress laughed. She knew what was about to happen.
Next we both received the same dish – autumn mushroom consommé with truffle dumpling. IMPORTANT NOTE: Fresh truffles. If you know anything – you know what this means. We had fresh truffles in the dumpling meaning that when you took a bite your mouth literally exploded with truffle flavour, but its subtle, refined and perfectly balanced with other mushrooms (literally too many types to list). The consommé is a crystal clear dark brown, and sits perfectly warm around the dumpling – and the whole dish is topped with (ahhhhhh) fresh truffle gratings.
I took the opportunity to update my favourite dish to this one. It was amazing.
Next up – beetroot carpaccio, red cabbage and chocolate for me and venison carpaccio, pepper, chocolate and pickled red cabbage for Dane. The dishes are mostly the same. A base of a bitter chocolate crumb, topped with pickled red cabbage, then Dane’s was topped with lightly seared venison (crusted with a bunch of different peppers) and mine was with thinly sliced beetroot. Topped with a herby sauce and some other just mind blowing things – I had a new favourite dish. This was overall my favourite savoury dish of the night… and I mean it.
Next I received pumpkin, potato, chestnut brussel sprouts and cassis and Dane received beef cheek, oxtail sandwich, chestnut brussel sprouts and fig.
I think it’s important to point out something – see the brussel sprout description doesn’t have a comma after chestnut? That’s because Chef Nelly has literally hollowed out brussel sprouts and filled them with a chestnut puree. You don’t expect it, because no one is reading that closely – you put a brussel sprout in your mouth and there is this creamy, nutty flavour with completely matches the strong flavour of the sprout.
What did I do? Giggle – like a child. Things like this get me – people who understand food, chefs who do things to surprise, excite and to bring a dish to life. Little things that don’t have to be done – but when they are dinner becomes a performance and something you remember, literally forever. The beef cheek was Dane’s dish of the night – falling apart… cooked to perfection. The oxtail sandwich was the waitresses favourite and Dane agreed – in fact after taking a bite – we just looked at each other across our plates and started laughing.
We probably looked like absolute lunatics – hysterically laughing over how good the food was. Its THAT good that you lose your mind.
Next we moved onto the sweet stuff. Pre-dessert was comte, pineapple, rockmelon and milk. Milk crisps were teamed with rockmelon and raisins soaked in a delicious mix of vodka and rum – topped with a pineapple sorbet that tasted like summer. Over the top of it all – grated cheese. Yep – cheese. Why? Who knows – but holy mother of curd – it worked.
Next – and I have to take a deep breath here – the absolute best dish I have ever eaten, in my entire life, EVER. Hands down. Think of the best dish you’ve ever had – BEATS IT. I don’t even need to know what you’re thinking – I’m TELLING you this is better.
Pistachio, white corn and cherry is the description on the menu. I don’t even know if I can explain this dish in a way that you can grasp how amazing it was.
White corn is smashed, coated in white chocolate and smashed again. Then mixed into this is the unexpected crack of popping candy. Then we’re going to top that with a pistachio sorbet that is the most delicious sorbet you’ve ever had – subtle, smooth, creamy and the perfect set. On top of that, lets get in there some cherry ‘jam’ which is like little ruby piles of sweet, tartness to balance out the sorbet – and then top it all with a cloud of green sugar floss.
I die… even writing that makes me feel like going back tonight. I stared at my plate, in disbelief, with every mouthful. I think I uttered “oh my god” about 100 times and eventually Dane laughed at me. I was engrossed. This dish was not too sweet, the perfect portion size and balanced like nothing I’d eaten before. Just perfection.
After this we had some of Nelly’s childhood memories on a plate – eccles cakes (which he personally doesn’t like but they’re delicious) with lemon curd with lime. They were crispy, doughy, tangy and amazing.
The last thing we had was “toffee apple”. Nelly had decided he wanted to watch my face when I ate this one. Clearly I had not gone unnoticed in my hysterical food appreciation every time a dish arrived. I popped a small sphere into my mouth – bit down and the outer shell cracked and shocked me with the liquid centre filling my mouth (which was something creamy, sweet and tasting of toffee apple). My reaction “Oh my god” – Nelly just smiled and returned to the kitchen – job done.
We left the dinner in awe of what had just happened. We discussed the meal the entire way home and I am pretty sure we will be discussing it until we visit again.
Like any genuine produce driven restaurant, the menu changes every single month, and the lunch menu changes weekly. This not only allows Nelly to use the best produce available, but it keeps him interested and engaged in the menu.
I will be back – every month – guaranteed. I recommend you get yourself there soon too. Seriously…. Go.